The Hare and The Silver fish of Kilkeel

A long time ago on the Mourne Mountains, in the town-land of Aughnahoory, and not far from Hanna’s Close, just above the fishing town of Kilkeel in Co. Down there lived a very old woman. Her hair was long and dull grey and fell down below her shoulders. It was matted with the smoke of countless turf fires and dust. Her nose was pointed and her face was etched with the lines of years of toil, loneliness and hard labour. It was years since her hands had seen water and her long pointed nails were stained a dirty brown from the grime of past years. She was clothed completely in black for nearly as long as most people could remember. Her only concession to colour was a silver fish on a silver chain she hung around her neck. There were a few still around that still had hazy recollections of the first day that she came to the cottage in the Mournes with her new husband, a local fisherman. She was beautiful and love shone out of her face with the promise of happiness for ever more with her new beau. On the day he married her he hung a silver chain and silver fish around her neck as a symbol of his love for her.He had gone fishing two days after they had married but the sea had claimed him that day and he had never returned. She became reclusive and scratched out a meagre existence from snaring rabbits, eating wild herbs and gathering berries from the hedgerows in season. She kept a goat around the place for milk and grew spuds on a small holding at the back of the cottage. She rarely ventured from her stone cottage and yet people said that had often seen her far away from the home she supposedly lived in. There were some who said that they thought that she might be a witch. The locals talked about her in hushed tones at the corners of streets in Annalong and Newcastle, Hilltown and Mayobridge. Some said she took the shape of a cat and others swore that they had seen her turn into a stoat, and still others swore that they had seen her flying and silhouetted against the moon, riding on a broomstick up beyond Attical. Nobody was too sure about their facts but any stories told about her were certain of a listening ear around the Mournes. It was no surprise then that when sheep were found dead in the fields close to where she lived that the cause of their demise was attributed to the unfortunate woman. There were no visible marks on any of the 6 corpses lying in the field and no one suggested that they might have died from an unknown disease. Farmers gathered from miles around to discuss what had to be done. They agreed that she would have to be confronted. They marched up the narrow roadway to the cottage, about 30 of them. Nobody really wanted to lead but those at the front were pushed forward by those coming behind. They surrounded the cottage and shouted at her to come out. But nobody came out and the only sign of life was an unfortunate hare that happened to come from behind an outhouse at the back of the cottage. ”It’s the witch” one of them shouted “she’s trying to get away”. In an instance one of the men clobbered the unfortunate creature with a lump of a stick. It was all over, they moved as one body towards where it lay. Some then entered the cottage and set it ablaze before they lifted the dead hare and threw it into the blazing inferno. For years after that hares became associated in the minds of the people with witches and it wasn’t long before they were almost snared out of existence on the Mourne Mountains. They are still scarce to this day. Years later, close to the road between Kilkeel and Annalong , down along the craggy rocks, a skeleton was found in a sitting position, its head erect and looking out towards the sea, and around its neck was found a silver chain on which hung a silver fish. KW